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I’ve done a full read-through of the Harry Potter series every time I’ve been in any overnight treatment. Sometimes this has meant I’ve had a week to work with, sometimes several months. I’ve always managed, and with good reason. Tucked inside the many hundreds of pages of seemingly child-geared storytelling can be found countless golden nuggets of relatable analogies among the broader lessons to be learned about mental health.
J.K. Rowling perfected the story to be this way, of course. Like all good children’s media (if you can even call Harry Potter simply for children, given its common transcendence of boundaries like age and gender), it is to be consumed in one way by children and in a different way as those children age. Every year I could have been at Hogwarts, from ages eleven to seventeen, I’ve read the stories differently. To be fair, I’ve read them each likely upwards of thirty times- with the fourth likely clocking in at over forty and the fifth under thirty- so I’d naturally discover more within the manuscript each time. There are many ways in which Rowling’s stories can be digested, of course, and I’d like to share with you some lessons I’ve learned from Harry and his friends/foes, as well as bits that have comforted me.
Humans are multi-faceted, and we should cut each other a break, for Merlin’s sake. This one is basic empathy, in sum, and Rowling emphasizes empathy above all else in her series. She often refers to it as love, citing love as Harry’s greatest strength and the way he is able to triumph over evil, as could we all. The two are similar enough to be equated, and love both paints a more pleasant picture of it and makes it easier for children to understand.
We are given reasons to care for and dislike every character in Harry Potter. Most people, I find, don’t even like Harry himself. Rowling takes great care to emphasize how “we have both light and dark inside of us,” and even in seemingly irredeemable characters, such as Lord Voldemort, we’re exposed to the why and the how.
“We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.” – Sirius Black
Almost the entire sixth book is dedicated, plot wise, to diving into Voldemort’s past. Why is the epitome of evil the way that it is? How is evil nurtured, who must enable it and how can its creation lead to its downfall? Along the journey, we’re privy to heart-wrenching factoids about Voldemort’s upbringing; he is an orphan who never knew either of his parents and who was an outcast as a child. He was a descendant of the stereotypically evil Hogwarts founder. He felt chronically misunderstood, and his hope for a pure, powerful bloodline gave him a sense of purpose that, when shattered upon discovering that he was only half-wizard (to put it in layman’s terms) leaves him reeling. He was never capable of love or empathy, in the first place. Could he have done any better than he did? We are given his full name, Tom Marvolo Riddle, and this question to ponder.
It isn’t just the embodiment of evil we’re asked to love, though. Every character is nuanced. I happen to love Hermione most of any character for her intelligence, assertiveness, rule following and intimate emotional capacity, but anyone else could just as easily find her bossy, nosy, a show off, or annoying, and many do, both in real life and in the books. Ron, a secret fondness of mine, is emotionally limited, not terribly bright, petty and immature, but I love him for his ability to use humor to lift the moods of others and his loyalty. Draco Malfoy, a bullying villain for the vast majority of the series, is given depth in the latter two books with a storyline about his inner conflict with morality in the face of a birthright duty to evil. Let’s not talk about Dolores Umbridge, yeah?
The epitome of this concept is, of course, Severus Snape. I find Snape to be pretty uninspiring but it’s a common interpretation of his actions to see them as ultimately good. To fill you in, he was a prejudiced bully in school, so Harry’s dad and his friends were mean to him, and then Harry’s dad married the girl Snape loved so he spends the rest of his days hating and severely bullying Harry and every child who dares amicably encounter him. He does so because he stakes himself at the school to watch over Harry and protect him despite considerable danger from Voldemort, all because he loved Harry’s mother. While I find many issues with the popular view that Snape was some sort of hero (did he love Harry’s mother or just fetishize her? And he in no way needed to become one of Harry’s friends’ (Neville) literal worst fear in the world!), the series does indeed rely on him seeming like a horrible bully for most of it, only for him to emerge as an enormously complex and in many ways sympathetic character at the very end, upon whom the plot to dismantle evil largely rests. ‘Till the very end…
Rowling lends us the gift of complexity with her characters. She and her world taught little Olivia how to look more deeply into the heart of a person to see them more accurately than by what may be immediately evident. I assume the best in people and retain the capacity to understand the worst in them. Everyone I meet bears a story that I humbly am yet to fully understand, perhaps won’t ever understand, and it educates the things that they do, for better or for worse. I am the same. Good people do bad things, bad people do good things, and the question why? unlocks many doors, far better than alohomora!
I see myself and my life in many of the predicaments of the characters in the Harry Potter series. I see my scrupulosity, passion for academia, and empathy (I hope!) in Hermione, but she is more assertive than I am, and is able to more easily keep her head held high in the face of opposition of those traits. Reading about Hermione’s way of coping with being teased for being bossy or a know-it-all helped little (and big) Olivia learn how to navigate her own parallel qualities. I saw myself in Ginny, a bright girl who made the intersection of athletics and femininity look cool. Eighth grade me appreciated that. I saw my timidity and fear in Neville, as well as his insistence on standing up to his friends, and marveled in the overcoming of his timidity by aggressively fostering his talents where they appeared (plant work!). I saw my frequent fretting and desire to people-please in the giant groundskeeper Hagrid, a character with whom I would at first seem to have little in common. I saw myself in Draco Malfoy, a scared child tasked with something much bigger and scary than should ever have been asked of him.
Those are the things that swept to to my rescue when my brain was still being molded, an impressionable child. As my child brain evolved into that of a teen and adult with tumultuous and dark emotions and experiences, I found myself best served by finding analogies to my life within plot lines that Rowling created, for the farther out one zooms, the greater the lessons are to be learned.
One I’ve found particularly comforting is a plot that emerges in the second book. Ginny, the eventual athletic and vivacious powerhouse, was first a shy, meek girl who was possessed (think demonic possession) by Lord Voldemort, the big man himself. She was prompted to do things by her possessor that she would never do if she’d been in control of her own mind (strangle chickens, write messages in blood). I, too, have watched myself do things that a spotless mind would never do. Fully healthy, I’d have made it to school every day, eaten normally. I’d see a pair of steps as numberless, unpicked skin as the tranquil status quo, others’ insecurities as simply their own. I’d never have had a desire to end my own life. What kind of human being, evolutionary instinct and all, wants to be the one to off themselves, despite lifelong attempts, always, to survive? A mind, invaded.
When Ginny emerges from her possession, she is immediately forgiven. Though she assisted in the barely thwarted attempt by Voldemort to come back to life, her parents tearfully embrace her and her crimes remain unpunished by a sympathetic Headmaster Dumbledore. It’s understood that she’d been not of her right mind when she smeared blood and killed chickens. Her experience with possession ultimately allows her to more meaningfully connect with Harry- her eventual husband- displaying how good can come from past hardship, specifically how difficult experiences can unite healed sufferers. Similarly, outside forces can take hold of good folks’ minds, making them say and do things they wouldn’t otherwise. It takes courage to look deeper into a person than the surface level at which their mind can be manipulated, its grey area. It’s courage that I’ve always found to be so meaningful in my doctors; they always could look past my irrational and sick behaviors and find the core meaning of them, access my true character that was shining through, despite everything.
Most recently, I found solace in a comparison between myself and a situation Harry finds himself in in the fifth installment of the series. In short form, Harry is lured to a dangerous location because of maliciously false images that were implanted into his brain, images that prompted him to want to travel a long distance to save someone he loved. Hermione, ever the guiding presence, tries to remind Harry that he is more vulnerable to manipulation because of his “saving people thing,” and he spurns her, a fatal decision. Had Harry possessed the self awareness to understand that he did indeed have a penchant for being the one to try to save those in need, he may have been able to step back and make the right call.
Oh boy, do I ever have a saving people thing. Being surrounded by ill children has made me, in combination with genetic predispositions and my upbringing, extremely eager to caretake those who are unable to do so for themselves. I clamber to be the hero for people and take on their hardships as my own. Within the environments I’ve found myself- rich with ill teens- this is mostly a curse. It stems from the empathy I partially acquired from my Harry Potter centric upbringing, making it based in an admirable quality, but its tangible results include depersonalization and terrible guilt and self hatred when I fail to single-handedly heal people, people who therapists have not yet been able to crack. More broadly, I often feel the pain of nearly everyone else as if it were my own.
One concept I found particularly meaningful to me when I was in treatment is the necessitation of being healthy in order to help others who aren’t. My whole life I’d scoffed at the idea of putting myself first. What a selfish idea! I’d encourage my friends to do it but I couldn’t muster it myself. A particularly insightful doctor pointed out to me that it was alright to have a saving people thing, but it couldn’t possibly be effective unless I’d saved myself first. People need to learn how to develop boundaries, how to function on their own, how to regulate their emotions, before they can fully dedicate themselves to purely empathy driven endeavors.
Similarly, Harry was offered the chance to learn to close his mind to the images, but he chose not to. He wanted the insight that the images gave him. It was almost as if it would be selfish of him to cut off crucial access to Voldemort’s mind. His empathy was used against him, and he failed to save anyone.
The lesson here is simple: help yourself in order to help others.
Most of you have probably read the Harry Potter series, but I encourage you to give it another read through, or at least reflect back upon it, focusing particularly on the lessons about empathy, self-sacrifice, self care, and human complexity. The series may have been initially marketed for youth, but nowadays it’s for folks of all ages, and really it always was. It’s played a large role in my recovery, and even if you may seem to have nothing to recover from, I promise you’ll be able to identify personalized life lessons under the trio of stars that adorn every page.